Last Thursday I dragged myself out of bed at 3 am and then spent 12 and a half hours down on the Levels. Why? To take part in a booming Bittern survey. But also, more importantly, to spend the day with the other three Somerset Trainees, as our last day as a foursome. Claire has managed to find a job (hurray for her 🙂 ) which means that at the end of this month any Team Somerset trainee meet ups will only involve three of us. We couldn’t have hoped for a better day and we managed to pack a lot into it!
I pulled into the Avalon Marshes Centre at 4.30 am to find the place bustling with staff and volunteers from all the partner organisations, setting out to take up strategic positions across the Levels in an attempt to determine how many male Bitterns are currently out there. I was partnered with a volunteer named Jeff, and we took up our position in the Viridor Hide at Westhay Moor. It was pitch black when we first arrived, and only by straining my eyes could I make out the three open channels amongst the reeds. Slowly the sky began to lighten and the air was filled with the sounds of the dawn chorus. To begin with only the occasional boom could be heard every few minutes or so but from about half 5 we had 20 minutes of almost constant booming from three males. It is such a fantastic noise to hear; not as loud as I expected it to be but incredibly deep and very distinctive! I’m glad all four of us got to hear it as would have been a shame to spend the year in Somerset and miss out on it!
We stopped recording at 6am, (the booming had quietened down by then) and headed back to the Avalon Marshes centre. There all the volunteers who had been out at Westhay gathered to try and pinpoint exactly where each male had been calling from. Looking at the records from where each of us had been spread around the reserve it seems that there are 6 males currently in residence, the same as last year. The same will be done for the other sites to try and work out total numbers across the area. Handing in all our record sheets we all tucked into our well deserved reward for the early start; a full english breakfast!
Once we’d eaten, we spent the rest of the morning with Phil, the reserves assistant down on the levels, and one of his volunteers, Dave. We headed back over to Westhay Moor where we were burning up some Willow and Birch brash, that they’d cleared previously. This mean burning on corrugated iron so we didn’t set fire to the peat. It became clear how careful you have to be even burning this way when, slightly distracted by mini-egg cake Olivia had bought for us, we turned back to the fire to see flames licking up from underneath the metal. Luckily it was quickly put out with the use of beaters and buckets of water from the nearby ditch!
Between all of us we made pretty short work of the burning and still had plenty of time to kill before our next activity. We decided to head over to the hides for a little bit before lunch time and fill our time with some birdwatching. I managed to spot a Water Rail as it was coming out of the reeds and point it out to Olivia and Claire, before it disappeared. We were also treated to some fantastic views of a pair of Marsh Harriers over the reeds in front of the hide. After oggling its pale bits I decided that male Marsh Harrier are really rather sexy! As always happens when we’re in the Viridor hide we were all secretly hoping for otters but unfortunately Tarka didn’t put in an appearance for us.
After a quick dash back to Avalon to get Chris some lunch it was time for us all to help out with a school group so we could get an idea of what Claire’s trainee role involved. The school group were doing orienteering – using maps to locate fact cards dotted around the reserve to answer questions on the wildlife they could find there. The kids piled off the bus all prepared in their wellies and waterproofs, and after a quick safety talk we were off. As there were so many of us to help out we each had a small group to help map read, and guide away from the open water. I was with two adorable little girls who were really keen to get on with the activity. They managed to navigate the map with only a little help from me, and very sweetly took it in turns to read the cards and write the answers. I was impressed with how well they tackled some of the words; ‘irridescent’ and ‘murmuration’ are tricky when you’re 7! After a close call with a welly and a muddy patch we managed to find all of the cards and get back to the hide at the same time as everyone else. It was fantastic to see how keen they all were to tell us the answers to all the questions and they were all smiling as they got back on the minibus. Chris had been in charge of a group of three boys, had obviously made a good impression on them as just before they left they gave him a Chomp for being a ‘good helper’!
Despite the ridiculously early start I wasn’t quite ready to head home after the school group had left; I wanted to see some ducks and I knew they’d be in the far corner of the reserve. Needing no convincing the other trainees decided to come with me. As always we found plenty to stop and look at; Chris and Olivia discovered a part of Westhay they didn’t know existed, Claire saw her first Teal, I got my duck fix (Teal, Shoveler, Goosander, Mallard and Tufty), and we all found a Grey Heron perched in a tree more entertaining than normal (I blame the early start and tiredness).
Happy that I’d managed to see some ducks we made our way back to the cars. Despite the early start now catching up with us all, we couldn’t quite bear to bring such a good day to an end and must have lingered in the car park for at least half an hour just talking! (It did mean that I saw a Great White Egret fly over – keeping my record of seeing them when on the levels at 100%). We’d managed to fit in an element of each of our traineeships into the day, practical, survey and education, and had plenty of fun whilst doing it all. Leaving the car park, knowing that was the last time we would all be together whilst on this traineeship, it felt very real that my time in Somerset is coming to an end!
It’s fantastic news that Claire has managed to secure herself a job but she will be sorely missed, especially with the Somerset residential just around the corner! Luckily Team Somerset won’t be parted for too long as we’re already making plans on when we can all be reunited and have been talking about all meeting up to revisit reserves we’ve worked on after we’ve all got ourselves fancy new jobs. This traineeship, as I’d hoped, has been fantastic for gaining experiences and qualifications. An unexpected bonus has been to make three such brilliant friends, and though we may all be soon scattered across the country, I know I’ve made friends for life!